Early July 2013 and a new cricket book hit the book stalls (or the digital, modern day equivalents): Gentlemen, Gypsies and Jesters: The Wonderful World of Wandering Cricket. In essence, it was Stephen Chalke’s latest tome that details the varying histories of a litany of wandering / touring cricket clubs; those itinerant teams that roam the various counties playing for the sheer love of the game and the social boon of such a cricketing lifestyle rather than the for the judgement of points, tables and league positions. From the more famous Heartaches, I Zingari, Allahakbarries and the Stragglers of Asia to a few less known XI’s, the book proves a real gem for the cricket connoisseur.
Chalke’s accounts (and those of his fellow author Anthony Gibson) do not include the Unicorns but one could raise a discussion as to whether they should be included. Comprised of players from the minor counties and recreational cricket, said team first arrived on the cricket horizon for the 2010 domestic season when they became part of the now defunct Pro40 competition. The Unicorns tenure lasted four seasons before a think tank decided they were surplus to requirements. The team’s existence remained intact though in the form of a team in the Second XI Trophy and the Second XI T20 Cup; similar limited overs competitions but arguably at a level more befitting the team’s playing abilities.
Understandably, the Unicorns could not be included in the aforementioned book due to their existence in knock-out competitions but they are the touring team of choice for the semi-professional and amateur level. Without a permanent home, their four seasons amongst the first class counties witnessed decampments at locales such as Bournemouth’s Dean Park, Exmouth’s Maer Ground, Wormsley’s Sir Paul Getty Ground, Bury St Edmunds’ Victory Ground, Truro’s Boscawen Park and Sidmouth’s The Fortfield. Residing amongst the Second XI brethren, the current venues du jour include exotic and intriguing locales such as Long Marston’s Marlins ground, Billericay’s Toby Howe ground and Saffron Walden’s Anglo-American Playing Fields.
Today’s match takes place in the southern hinterlands of Newbury against Middlesex’s Second XI. For the Unicorns, existence is not just about a nomadic, transient lifestyle but also an ever changing cast of dramatis personae. An eyebrow raising thirty-one different players were used during the 2016 season with a further seven new players added to the list during three matches against the counties prior to the trip to rural Berkshire. Two more join the list for the latest Second XI Trophy encounter.
In some respects the regular change of personnel is a constant of the team’s summer and one that has to be negotiated. Such an issue is not conducive to challenging for honours but the team does provide another pathway for minor counties players to step up another level and challenge themselves against a higher standard of opposition. Unlike the second XI squads of the first-class counties, the Unicorns are largely selecting from a pool of amateur players. Thus, issues such as work commitments and associated travel are all the more paramount, issues all too familiar with the minor counties game. Indeed, one ponders whether geography plays a part in team selection, for ease of convenience and travel if nothing else. A quick perusal of the starting XI reveals otherwise though. Although a block of eastern counties largely form the team, with three players from Cambridgeshire, one from Suffolk and one from Northamptonshire’s second XI, players are also derived from Herefordshire, Wiltshire and Staffordshire whilst two players have made the long journey down from Cumberland. Performers from host county Berkshire and near neighbours Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire are absent. Midweek cricket for an amateur team is a complex business.
Unlike their spell in the List A competition the Unicorns have discovered that life in the Second XI structure is a little more amenable, albeit still with modest results. Nevertheless, last summer’s seventh placed finish in the north group did include finishing above Yorkshire, Worcestershire and Nottinghamshire. Early season defeats to Somerset and Hampshire point to further struggles though, particularly as a strong Middlesex team make their way along the M4 to the Newbury hinterlands.
The Unicorns may struggle for player consistency but their plight is not helped by a familiar second XI phenomenon: the first XI player dropped down for some time at the crease or a few extra overs. Middlesex’s Ollie Rayner, talked of in some circles as a potential squad member to the previous winter’s sub-continent tours, is included by the London county but it is opener Stevie Eskinazi, now a first XI regular, who causes immediate problems. The visitors lose the toss but are invited to bat first, and they begin proceedings scoring quickly with the South African born opener to the fore. Eskinazi quickly reaches a half century but the wily left arm spin of Cumberland’s Toby Bulcock, something of a Unicorns regular, puts the breaks on visitors’ progress.
Middlesex pass three figures in the 22nd over but Bulcock finds an able deputy in his Cumberland team-mate Mattie McKiernan. Neither are able to break the impressive partnership between Eskinazi and George Scott though. Containment is not even half the battle in the modern day limited overs game and a straight six soon followed by a flayed boundary over extra cover by Eskinazi signals an intent to up the scoring rate. Eskinazi and Scott record a century stand and soon increase the scoring rate on a small ground with an outfield shorn to crew cut length. Scott reaches his half century with an almost effortless pull shot over square-leg (the descending ball just missing a sentry Volvo V70 parked next to the pavilion) whilst Eskinazi ends a somewhat lengthy period in the 90’s by reaching three figures with a dab through cover, taking 104 deliveries to reach the landmark.
Scott himself soon takes over as the chief run scorer as the Unicorns seem almost powerless to stop the visitors’ cruise toward 300. Scott reaches his century from 113 balls as the final 10 overs prove a chastening experience for the hosts. With freedom throw the bat, Eskinazi survives a miss-cued lofted drive and dispatches the next delivery he faces over long-on into the adjacent field. A small stile, likely added to aid fielding teams, makes retrieving the ball a little easier. George Scott does not survive his dalliance with the ling-on fielder though whilst Eskinazi’s cavalier approach leads to his dismissal, falling one short of a brilliant 150.
Neither departure provides any respite for the ailing Unicorns bowlers though. Rather, both prompt some incredible late innings striking as Ollie Rayner biffs an astonishing half century (5 fours and 5 sixes) from just 16 deliveries. Two dot balls end Rayner’s mayhem in the final over as he is caught on the cover boundary but Middlesex finish on an imposing total of 338/4 from their allocation.
Convention dictates a difficult couple of hours for the Unicorns batsmen but the hosts score quickly in the opening overs, aided by Tom Barber’s awry radar contributing ten wides in his opening two overs. Indeed, the Unicorns reach fifty in the ninth over whilst attacking opener Ed Kilbee records a stylish half century including three consecutive boundaries off of Ollie Rayner. In combination with Lee Thomason, the Wiltshire batsman plays authoritatively. Ergo, his demise soon after proves costly and a little bizarre. Post a no ball from an attempted bouncer from Arthur Godsal, Kilbee launches into a lusty shot to what he believes is a free hit. Godsal takes the return catch from a miss-cue, prompting a celebration from the Middlesex players. Kilbee stands his ground before being informed that no free hit had been signalled, prompting a slow trudge back to the pavilion, innings curtailed at 77 runs.
Middlesex’s spinners turn the screw after Kilbee’s departure, leaving the Unicorns requiring 174 to win from the final 20 overs. Thomason soon follows Kilbee but wicket-keeper Michael Pepper takes over the attacking mantle, reaching his half century from 39 deliveries. The Unicorns’ cause is further helped by Tom Barber’s return to the attack; his first over upon returning costing 27 runs. He returns to concede just five runs from his next over (2 from a dropped catch) to leave the hosts requiring 82 from the final 10 overs. Nevertheless, Pepper finds able support in Mattie McKiernan as the Cumberland leg-spinner strikes 2 maximums off of Barber’s next over.
McKiernan falls for 31 but Pepper’s brilliance reduces the asking rate to 33 from 30 deliveries with 4 wickets remaining. Pepper records a stunning century from just 70 balls and the target is reduced to 20 from 18 deliveries. Wickets continue to fall though and Pepper is yorked by Harry Podmore at the beginning of the penultimate over, a wicket that shifts the momentum back in favour of the visitors. Last man Matt Wareing follows next ball, cutting straight to gully, and, somewhat sadly, the game is up as the nomadic team fall thirteen overs short of their county brethren.
In a contest of many runs and a slender margin of victory one ponders the difference between the two teams. Ollie Rayner’s stunning assault in the death overs is an obvious choice but his contribution was arguably partly offset by the Middlesex bowlers gifting twenty-nine extra runs and deliveries courtesy of wides and no-balls. Whatever the reasons behind the match result, the performance of the Unicorns in almost chasing down such an imposing target illustrates that this ever changing, ever moving team still has a place in the second XI county structure. They’ll do it all over again the following morning against Glamorgan before moving on to host further matches at locales such as Great and Little Tew and Long Marston before the summer is out.